Two questions about human history

December 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’m sure that historians have pondered the first question at length, but I haven’t read their lucubrations. According to Wikipedia, the first definitive use of the wheel on transportation was in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. We don’t know how many times it was invented independently, but probably more than once (see below):

So, my first question is this: Why was the wheel not devised in the New World? The Americas had plenty of civilizations, including many Native American groups, and the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya as well as many other groups, but none of them had the wheel, with one exception (see below). Why? Further, the Diquis culture had stone spheres beginning about 300 A.D., so they certainly knew that something round could roll. But this wasn’t adapted for carts or other rolling entities. Yet the Incas are said to have used wooden rollers to roll large stones for their walls and cities. Why no wheels, then?

According to The Straight Dope (I just looked this up), there was one exception:

The wheel evidently was familiar to the ancient Mexicans, the only known instance of its having been invented independently of the Sumerian version. Unfortunately, it apparently never occurred to anyone at the time that wheels had any practical application, and their use was confined to little clay gadgets that are thought to be either toys or cult objects.

That link also gives you an explanation that Cecil Adams considers definitive, but I don’t know. See for yourself.  I am guessing that Jared Diamond pondered this question in Guns, Germs, and Steel but I read it so long ago I can’t recall. Go to the link, read “the” answer to my question above, and see if you agree with Cecil.

My second question is this:  How did our ancestors keep their fingernails and toenails at reasonable length?

I thought of this question while clipping my nails the other day, and thought, “Scissors and nail clippers, and even steel knives were not invented in fairly late in human history. But yet our ancestors did without them for millions of years.  How did they keep their nails short?

Now you might say, “They didn’t need to: their nails wore down from hunting, gathering, and walking barefoot.” But I am not sure this is the case. How would walking barefoot wear down your toenails? And we know that, at least in modern society, if you don’t trim your fingernails and toenails, they get ungodly long (see below).  Did the ancients use flint? And what did they do before they had flint implements? Or did they bite their fingernails?

Now we could surely answer this question by observing what hunter-gatherers do, if anything, to keep their nails short. But I am not going to look it up; I’d rather have readers speculate or, if they know the answer, tell me.

Below: a video showing what happens if you don’t trim your nails: here’s a man who didn’t trim the nails on one hand for 66 years. (He explains why.) He has, on that hand, the longest known fingernails in history.

Of course he had to cut his nails on his right hand so he could do stuff (and I’m betting he’s a rightie). Nobody would marry him, and you can imagine the trouble he had just living from day to day. It’s all in the video

At the end they cut his nails:


100 thoughts on “Two questions about human history

  1. I’ve read the wheel wasn’t the problem but the hub – the wear caused by the axle – but I haven’t read why the hub wasn’t invented. Which gets us little further.

  2. the theory I’ve heard, and it must be true, because I heard it, is that the roads in ancient western civilizations tended to be more vertical than horizontal. Llamas had no trouble with those roads, whereas wheels wouldn’t work. on the other hand, I’ve wondered why there was no wheel in North America—why use travois when you could have wheels?

    1. What about this for an answer: The wheel had to be invented somewhere and that place didn’t turn out to be the new world. Except at the place of invention, there was failure everywhere.

  3. “My second question is this: How did our ancestors keep their fingernails and toenails at reasonable length?”

    I do not know what ancient humans did and have not looked up anything, but as a child I often just carved/peeled down my fingernails with my other fingernails. It was not a failproof method, because sometimes the nail used as a tool got damaged instead and also it was difficult to control the exact length. Nevertheless, by and large it worked.

    I never tried that personally, but I guess you can also chew on it. Teeth are harder than nails.

    1. Yes, I also did that for many years for both hand and feet nails although as Bill Bryson said “ toenails you could strike sparks from” put and end to the feet, well the large nails anyway, the small nails are still manageable especially after showering or bathing in warm water. Hands are more cosmetic as you age, in my opinion.

      1. I left that part out, because my memory about that is hazy (the work of about 30-35 years). I probably peeled the smaller ones the same way, but I can’t remember what I did with the big toe, as it is probably too tough for this.

      2. Just peeled them carefully keeping the amount peeled constant across the nail. Not difficult once you become proficient, the downside possibly is that it is not possible to achieve the “straight clip” across the top of the nail supposedly recommended by those who know about pedicure but humans managed well for a long time without toenail tools.

  4. Deep Thoughts – I love it!

    I imagine to peoples of south America or poles, the – a – a few..? – wheel(s) – due to irregular terrain – would not have had an evident use, compared to pack animals or horses., for travel or transport – nor would a wheel help in the desert sand. However, for pounding grain, I’d think eventually it would occur to someone to make the process easier, a curved surface would help.

    But this is new to me – so facts in what I wrote up above like which animals were used where are conjecture.

    1. I had read about this issue recently, and the conclusion was similar to yours: they had invemnted the wheel but it just wasn’t as useful in the New World. Maybe this could also be coupled with the lack of suitable “motors:; Oxen and horses are better pullers than llamas.

      1. They’d have to manufacture the wheel(s) – so tools, dies, raw materials … jigs that might have held parts but are removed leaving only a wheel… and transport thereof… it is not trivial! Ancient supply chains!….

        … sayyyy, when was the chain invented?!

        1. Your points about supply chains, manufacturing chains etc apply as well to “Old World” as “New World”.

          “Chain” … is a more interesting question.
          Quite obviously, it post-dates “rope”.
          Off the top of my head, I can only remember historical “First Appearence” as protecting Falmouth harbour in (about) 1550, and being one layer of the defences around Istanbul (specifically, across the Golden Horn) at about the same time. Two “independent” “First Appearences” suggest an earlier FA … but none come to mind.

          Trivially, the art of linking one “ring-forged” iron circle to another was a journeyman task well back in the BCE era.

    2. Some form of sled or similar would also be more practical and easy to load/unload etc with no moving parts and could be pulled by all convenient species.

    3. I suspect the “slide-car” was the intermediate stage between the pack animal and animal-drawn cart. They work on level ground but don’t need roads. With the development of roads (with ruts?), wheels might become viable technology and justify the effort to make and use them. Wheels would also become more viable with larger draft animals, say horses and oxen, with heavy loads that wheel would enable. Small animals, like dogs and llamas, would pull small loads that a slide-car could carry over most obstacles. My guess/hypothesis: the lack of large domesticated draft animals in the New World retarded the development of the wheel. See:

  5. I don’t recall if Guns, Germs, and Steel mentions the wheel, but Jared Diamond of course emphasizes the lack of large draft animals in the Americas.

    Other primates also have fingernails. How do they trim them? My guess is by nibbling, but I don’t know.

    1. Yeah, I bite my nails all the time and, even if I didn’t, I could easily just pick them off. It’s pretty easy.

    2. I recall Diamond also making the point in G,G &S that, although sub-Saharan Africa had numerous large mammals, they weren’t amenable to domestication.

      1. Diamond certainly asserts this. And it is true that they were not domesticated. But whether they *couldn’t* be seems unclear. Are zebra intrinsically scarier animals than the wild ancestors of the horse or the cow? You can argue why they might be but it seems far from proven.

        There were humans living around proto-cows and proto-horses for maybe 50-100 thousand years (or much longer if you count neanderthals etc.) If we aren’t surprised that they didn’t domesticate anything sooner, maybe we should also not be surprised that the ones living in Africa didn’t? It would be more surprising if it happened twice within the same 1 or 2 out of 100 millennia.

          1. If you geld the animals they are much less aggressive I suppose.

            On the third hand though, that does make it a bit difficult to breed the more domesticable lines together though.
            Which is a rather necessary part of the forced evolution that is domestication – fixing your choice of genes in the bloodline.

        1. Always puzzled me why some species have been domesticated and yet others, despite selective breeding like the silver fox experiment, just haven’t been. Is it something about the normal behaviour of certain species that makes them amenable? I suspect that you could selectively breed tigers until doomsday without domesticating them! If you lived that long!

  6. I can’t answer these questions, and in fact am about to post one more, but I still marvel at the fact that the Colosseum is still the world’s largest amphitheater. The scientific and architectural advances of the ancient/early Romans still dazzles me to this day.

    But here’s my other question for history buffs: why did the Romans think so little of naval technology/seafaring? One would think that an empire with that much coastline and territories far more easily accessed by sea than by land would take naval technology seriously, especially as it would have made crossings to other territories far easier, but they didn’t care for some reason. That lack of care even cost them dearly on multiple occasions (e.g. Caesar losing multiple legions during his second civil war, and Augustus doing the same soon after), so why did they continue to ignore this enormous opportunity/problem?

    1. I have to say that I suspect that the Roman naval tradition was much much more advanced than you give them credit for. Agricola was the first to arrange (I doubt that he went himself) a circumnavigation of the British Isles which would have taken a fair amount of skill and seamanship. We know that the Romans had advanced navigational instruments – the Antikythera mechanism being by far the best known – but I think that the basic reason why the Romans didn’t advance naval warfare was that they broadly didn’t need to. The Mediterranean famously was a Roman lake ( Caesar famously cleared down a rat’s nest of pirates ) and after the Civil War the navy became very much a supporting arm of the army (as the Claudian invasion of Britain testified). In other words: the Romans didn’t need to develop the navy much. The Roman Empire was, rather like Napoleon’s, a continental Empire.

      1. Thanks for your perspective. This answer and the one you provided below make a lot of sense.

        Since you seem to know a lot about naval history, I hope you won’t mind if I impose upon you with another question: why wasn’t a navy developed solely for the transport if legions? Was it just that the seas were seen as too risky for regular use (coupled, I imagine, with superstitions about it), especially for transporting a resource as precious as soldiers? There were an awful lot of long marches that could have been cut down significantly via naval transportation. How long did it take until the Roman Empire finally seriously invested in naval tech for military purposes?

        1. Yes but almost certainly the Romans had something similar. IIRC Cicero mentioned something relating to a instrument that bears some relationship to the Antikythera mechanism . I need to check.

    2. “why did the Romans think so little of naval technology/seafaring?”

      But they did think a lot about it, and acted as well. The Romans won the 1st Punic War thanks largely to naval battles and maritime weaponry such as the “corvus”. They called the Mediterranean “Mare nostrum” for a reason.

      1. I’ll use this as a reply to both you and bonetired above:

        I obviously wasn’t clear enough in my language. Roman naval technology was poor compared to their advances in other technology, and especially their warfare technology. Hell, a guy like Sextus Pompeius was able to blockade the empire and cause a disastrous famine, forcing Augustus (or, rather, Agrippa) to build an entire fleet and construct a whole navy just to defeat him.

        My question is why the Romans didn’t view naval technology and warfare in the same light as they did others. One rarely sees tributes to great Roman admirals of the time, and never triumphs (unless there’s one of which I’m not aware. But I don’t think admirals were even able to be hailed as imperators); only those who fought on land received such honors.

        1. I am going to take a stab here and say that right through until the Renaissance naval tactics were essentially land tactics on water – siege [ramming] warfare, boarding etc all had their counterparts in land warfare. It wasn’t until solid gun carriers evolved (the cog and then the hulk) that new naval tactics could evolve (although it should be noted that right up to the age of steam, naval warfare was almost exclusively a littoral occupation with deep sea fights a relative rarity – The Glorious First of June being a notable exception). In other words, it was generals who commanded fights in the ancient and early medieval period – right up to Lepanto with Don John being a general. It is also significant around that period the centre of European power swung decisively from the Med with Venice’s power rapidly diminishing, to the countries with an ocean seaboard – Spain, Portugal, Netherlands (a bit later) and, importantly, for world history, England.

          1. This makes a lot of sense, now that you say it. Naval tech didn’t have much use at the time beyond transportation and blockades. I guess an admiral didn’t have many ways to distinguish himself. Still though, after too many disastrous transports — especially of legions — I guess I just figured that they would have formed a little more respect for the field of naval tech. But what you said does make sense. I appreciate the reply and newfound perspective!

            1. I would suggest that you compare the Mediterranean galleys with the Mary Rose (about 1500) and you will my point. Despite the Mary Rose rapidly ending up at the bottom of the Solent and staying there for over 450 years, the technological jump between the two is astonishing. If you are ever in Portsmouth (UK), she is really a must visit.

              1. Will do! Sounds great. I was so happy when I visited London. Having lived in the US all my life, I never knew what it was like to have access to so much tangible history. I visited every museum I possibly could. It was awesome.

              2. Yes… Portsmouth has three of the most important vessels in the world: Mary Rose, HMS Victory and the first armour-plated, iron-hulled warship, HMS Warrior.

              3. “Yes… Portsmouth has three of the most important vessels in the world: Mary Rose, HMS Victory […]” – Chatham Dockyard, where HMS Victory was built, was very unhappy about the decision to award her to Portsmouth’s collection.

              4. You:

                Despite the Mary Rose rapidly ending up at the bottom of the Solent

                Wikipedia :

                Mary Rose (launched 1511) is a carrack-type warship of the English Tudor navy of King Henry VIII. She served for 33 years in several wars against France, Scotland, and Brittany. After being substantially rebuilt in 1536, she saw her last action on 19 July 1545

                Far from the first example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
                I’m not particularly sure what types of “Mediterranean galley” you’re talking about, so it’s hard to compare the two, but they’re very different designs of ship intended for very different types of operation – naturally they are different shapes, sizes and technologies. The drill ships and supply boats I’ve worked on over the years have been very different designs for different jobs, but I wouldn’t posit that one was a more “advanced” technology than the other.
                Do you count cannon technology taken from onshore as part of the technology of the ship – where they’re used, but not made.

            2. Still though, after too many disastrous transports — especially of legions — I guess I just figured that they would have formed a little more respect for the field of naval tech.

              But surely they did? When faced with the need to have a legion on that side of a body of water instead of this side, didn’t they generally send an emissary with (?) written orders to the nearest provincial commander instructing him to march his legion(s) to the target, and set the remaining legions in his province to recruiting new auxiliaries and offering citizenship (a very valuable property – see “Paul” et al, “Buy Bull”, various editions) as an inducement.
              In what was overwhelmingly a subsistence agriculture society with a high infant mortality, the prospect of getting rid of a surplus teenage son or several into the army while retaining “an heir and a spare” was probably less unappealing than trying to expose them on the hillside like you did with sickly and deformed infants.
              I’ve never heard of the Roman army having a problem recruiting – certainly not to the point of actually needing to put the steel glove on over the iron fist, and actually exposing the gladius.
              Mind you – since “conscription” is a Latin construct, maybe they had to resort to it – or at least to “asking” for volunteers (particularly from the neighbours of the people you’re talking to, hand idly resting on the gladius, 3 other fully-armed legionaries leaning on their spears behind you, carrying more pointed ironmongery then your neighbour’s farms combined.

        2. How much did they advance technology in other military areas? On the engineering side, they were certainly impressive with their siege engines and defensive building, but look at your basic infantryman. At the beginning of the Roman period he had a pointed or edged weapon and some armour. At the end of the Roman period, he had a pointed or edged weapon and some armour.

          1. They had stored-energy projectile weapons – twisted rawhide or sinew powering “ballistae” of various designs to ranges approaching a couple of hundred metres, and then pinning the target to a tree through the chest. That’s a capability that wasn’t exceeded until the 16th century CE.
            But for the basic infantryman … well pointy bits with sheets of point-blunting material for defence was also good enough for the next millennium or so. It didn’t change much until the spread of firearms in the 14th to 16th century CE.
            If, quoth Napoleon “an army marches on it’s stomach”, then the detailed military manuals (and their implied training programmes) on things like camp construction, latrine construction and siting, road making … speak of a degree of professionalism and extra-familial training that was in eclipse for most of the “Dark Ages” and Mediaeval period. Our vaunted “Royal Society” and university system can be seen as the next step from apprenticeship in a pseudo-family setting, a step the Romans seemed to be taking a millennium before.

  7. Fingernails are not particularly a problem. You can use the fingernails on one hand to ‘cut’ the nails on the other hand. More interesting is how our ancestors cut their hair before they had knives or stones with a cutting edge. Linked to this is why our hair grows on our head (and thus falls over our eyes when long and impedes our vision) when in other primates, and most animals, it does not. It would presumably be rather dangerous to have long air in front your eyes and be unable to cut it. Presumably the evolutionary advantages of long hair outweighed the disadvantages, but there would seem to be several disadvantages of long hair on the head for early hominims.

    1. We don’t have much evidence on hair growth that I know of, but it seems the evidence for loss of body hair and clothes use line up very roughly around 1 Myrs ago. But if head hair evolved as a sexual signal, its length may have evolved at any time.

      As far as I know reconstructions of human faces don’t show much sex differences up until Holocene ~ 10 kyrs ago, so maybe hair length started to take off then as we settled down into communities. Presumably we knew how to cut hairs by then since the earliest found textile like materials are older at ~ 30 kyrs.

    2. Amusing hypotheses made up in the moment:

      1. Long hair would give an infant something to grasp on a body that has already lost its body hair but still has no clothes.

      2. Long hair, or rather few hairs picked from it, can be invaluable for making composite tools.

      Also, I think now that in the cradle of humanity – sub-Saharan Africa – today’s inhabitants have very short hair. Is this a primary or a secondary trait?

  8. An equally good question is why none of the “new world” civilizations that made extensive use of stone ever discovered the compressive arch, and instead used corbelled aches that invariably fail over time. One might suppose that a kid playing with rocks would eventually discover the arch, but apparently not.

    1. and instead used corbelled aches that invariably fail over time.

      For values of “invariably” that can exceed 4000 years. In the NW European Archipelago, at least. Oh, and on the more seismically active Malta.
      I’d have to check which arch type was more common in Mesopotamia and the Levant ; the Egyptians tended towards the “bloody great lintel” school of spanning gaps.

  9. I had an employee that didn’t cut his fingernails. Why? Just to see what would happen. They curled inwards until they dug into his palms. He eventually tired of it and, I suppose, got all he could from the attention it drew. Weird guy!

    I don’t know what the ancients did but I would guess they used a rough rock to wear them down. A bit time-consuming but they had plenty of that, I assume.

    As for the invention of the wheel, it has always been surprising that it wasn’t invented earlier and more widely. On the other hand, when would it be invented? As far as I know, none of the other apes have done so. Even within our own lifetimes, it is always hard to remember what it was like not to know something. Probably, like with most inventions, it takes a certain combination of environmental and developmental factors to all come together before a wheel needs to be invented. Until that time, rollers were deemed good enough.

    1. As for the invention of the wheel, […] Probably, like with most inventions, it takes a certain combination of environmental and developmental factors to all come together

      To misquote concerning one of our favourite dinosaurs, “which came first, the road or the wheel?”
      And a “road” rather presupposes a point “A” and point “B” which are relatively fixed for long periods so that “the most efficient route” has some measurable pay-back for the user.

  10. When I think about the wheel I speculate on the reason or uses of the invention. Originally for mobility of things and later applied to mechanical inventions and finally to steam, electric and gas powered things. The wheel allowed many of these later inventions to have function and without the wheel they were not possible or useful. Humans used the wheel to create and extract all kinds of things, to grind flour, invent the cotton gin, spin threat into cloth and do millions of other things. One of the most essential inventions to this day, electricity, would not. be possible without the wheel.

    1. Humans used the wheel to create and extract all kinds of things, to grind flour,

      That was relatively late. The construction towns around the Gaza pyramids (so 2400 BCE?) included “saddle querns” in abundance, pushed to and fro (not round and round) by some poor woman (or child) doing the “daily grind”.
      The Romans definitely had rotating grindstones powered by waterwheels, but I don’t know if they invented them, or stole them from the Greeks, Carthaginians, or Mesopotamians. Saddle querns were still in use well into the Middle Ages in Britain, and their use stopped probably more due to economics (the Lord of the Manor wanted you to pay his miller grinding fees to use the Lord’s wind- or water- mill) than inefficiency.

  11. As far as I know, the oldest known wheel was found in a marsh in Slovenia, and dates from 3500 B.C. But a clay model of a wheeled cart found in Ukraine was dated from about 4500 B.C. It seems logical that wheeled transport would have been developped in the eurasian steppe, an open country whith rather hard soil – and also the place of horse domestication: no need for a road. In northern America, it could have been developped too, but the tribes of the plains didn’t have horses before 1600, more or less. They developped the travois very quickly indeed !

    1. At the beginning in the Middle East and Europe horses were not used to draw wheeled vehicles either. They used cattle. Horses came later and even after that oxen still persisted as “engine” for heavy wagons, where speed was not the primary issue.

      Nevertheless, America did not have cattle either.

      As for the origin of wheel, the Bronocice pot is found in Poland and dated to around 3500 BC. It is thought to depict a wheeled wagon.

      But could you give a source for the 4500 BC clay model from Ukraine? There is a lot of articles about clay vehicle models 1000+ years later from all around the region (Carpathian Basin, Ukraine, etc.), but I could not find any lead on the 4500 BC one.

      1. Horses for drawing heavy loads indeed came much later, I thought, like after 1000 AD? But were the first wheeled vehicles for transport at all? I had the impression that it was first about war, with horses. And perhaps the constraints are less tight there — the axle doesn’t need to work week after week, it just needs to last long enough to win the battle. It doesn’t need to be cheaper than hiring another mule; the one or two men it carries will be wealthy cavalry officer types.

        Which suggests that the lack of horses, and of steppe invaders using them to make war, is why the mayans et. al. didn’t have them.

        Bronocice is pre-aryan though. If that’s really a cart of some sort, then it doesn’t fit this story. Although googling things, I find the Trundholm sun chariot, which while later, seems like the sort of ceremonial object you can imagine people who knew about the wheel making, even if wheels weren’t economic for transportation. Perhaps the Bronocice pot depicts something like that.

        1. Yes, it is pretty sure that the first wheeled vehicles where about transport. The signs of the existence of wheeled wagons (clay models, depictions) pre-date war chariots by more than a millennium. Although our knowledge on that front is uncertain, but they probably pre-date even horse domestication itself or at least important stages of it. And definitely pre-date widespread horse-warfare. (Horses in war actually first used with chariots, classic cavalry came only in the Iron Age and pretty much made war-chariots obsolete for the most part.)

        2. But were the first wheeled vehicles for transport at all? I had the impression that it was first about war, with horses.

          For sure, the first illustrations found of horse-drawn vehicles are variations on “war cart” – in both Mesopotamia and Egypt.
          But that’s hired scribes and masons “writing” about their patrons for a fee (in beer, food, coin, or non-decapitation). Whether they got to the tomb/ building site/ whatever on the back of an ox-drawn sledge would only get drawn if the Boss paid for it.
          So … you need to look at the debris of building sites, where sketches and “scurrilous” cartoons about “the Boss” are often found on a broken lunch-pot. That’ll tell you more about what “the man on the Gaza ox-cart” is seeing in the traffic jam.

          1. Right, what gets written down is certainly a potential bias.

            But expensive new technology being used for warfare, long before it’s economic elsewhere, also wouldn’t be surprising. We didn’t put up GPS satellites to make life easier for your taxi driver.

            > ox-drawn sledge

            Dragging things surely predates wheels by a long time, of course. But would be where you learn how to make a harness, and make the oxen walk straight, etc.

      2. Oups, sorry – it was written “première moitié du 4e millénaire”, I saw the “4” and and I stupidely wrote “about 4500 B.C.” Of course year numbers of the fourth millenium start with a 3! Mea culpa!

    2. In northern America, it could have been developped too, but the tribes of the plains didn’t have horses before 1600, more or less.

      The horse was extinct in the Americas before Columbus – I’m not sure if they were extinct before the Siberians came over the Bering- Aleutian land bridge. When Columbus (or Cortez – one of that group of genocides) came across, their appearance with horses was literally shocking to the Aztecs/ Tolmecs/ etc.

      They developped the travois very quickly indeed !

      Is there evidence one way or the other that they didn’t use the travois before the arrival of horses? It seems to me that it would work just as well towed over the pelvis of a llama (without undue strain on it’s spine) or over a humans shoulders.

      1. Native North American horses were still around when modern humans arrived and for thousands of years after that. It is even possible that human predation (hunting) greatly contributed to their extinction, together with climate change.
        But – to be fair – they had gone extinct a way before horse domestication started in West Eurasia. At the time horses were just food for Eurasian hunters too. So it was just a matter of luck, not a matter of superior foresight in West Eurasia.
        From the evolution side of it, it also possible that Eurasian horses had behavioral differences that made easier for them to avoid human predation. After all they developed alongside human hunters (including pre-modern ones) with steadily advancing technology for much longer.

        1. After all they developed alongside human hunters (including pre-modern ones) with steadily advancing technology for much longer.

          There were “Homo erectus” in Georgia (Caucasus, not USA) at about 1.8 to 2 million years BP, but I don’t remember if their associated fossils include horse-ish animals. Would that have been in the period of Mesohippus or early Equus? (Wiki says Equus.)

  12. My father, a veteran sailor, used to trim his nails with his pocket knife, which he always kept sharp and on him. He told me he learned the technique from his time in the Navy, and he was pretty adept at it. I offer his example as backup to the idea that our ancient ancestors used flint to trim their nails.

  13. The use of the wheel must have required the right combination of situational ingredients. Things like, ample leisure time for a culture of thinkers and dreamers/engineers to develop. A certain attitude toward discovery that allowed people to imagine the potential of a notion. Ancient cultures were probably mostly not progressive in the way we are today (is your cell phone obsolete?). Discovery needs a society that would not discourage the development of a notion through stages to fruition (perhaps the Gods would frown on it). Perhaps these ingredients were not especially common in the new world or the old, so that the discovery of the wheel happened once in Mesopotamia as a fluke. It could have happened in the West. Maybe it was just luck. If it had been the other way around, we’d be asking, how was it the Americans came up with the wheel and the Europeans never did? Christopher Columbus brought syphilis and took back the wheel.
    I don’t clip my finger nails, I just tear them off. I do cut my toe nails though.

  14. Mesoamericans had wheeled toys. Perhaps the issue was that they didn’t have beasts suitable for haulage, like the European horse and ox?

  15. Some comments made me suspect that surely the internet has videos of some geniuses who bite their own toenails, once the fingernails are too short.

  16. As a few answers above alluded to terrain, my guess is that wheels are not of much use without roads. Most terrain on the planet is too rough or forested to roll a cart across for any distance.

    It was probably easier to clear paths in the Mesopotamian desert than in most other places, and then the Romans made a lot of roads.

    1. I think that’s it. Wheeled vehicles are useful only on smooth hard roads (and railways) that don’t get impassably muddy. Rolling friction rises rapidly on soft surfaces, as any cyclist knows. Good roads are very useful even to men on foot, particularly if carrying heavy packs and weapons, like the Roman legionnaires. But they require large investment of resources and specialized labour to build and maintain. And there has to be a good reason to build the road in the first place: you have to have a destination in mind, empire, trade, communication, not just foraging. This leads to a public goods problem: nomads who built roads would eventually have to abandon them when local food ran out, leaving the next occupiers of the territory to benefit from their effort.

      Even with a good hard road, you still won’t bother with wheeled carts unless you have draft animals and fodder to feed them. A man with a pack will walk farther than he will haul a heavy cart containing the same payload. (Even the high-tech light baby strollers you see parents running with are practical only on urban sidewalks without rough joints.) Not all horses good for riding are suitable for yoking. Oxen and buffalo are better until draft horses can be bred. No formal agricultural civilization + no roads + no draft animals = no stimulus to invent wheels in the Americas. Later, oxcarts and prairie schooners were specifically optimized to the demands of a one-way trip across the prairie grasslands, particularly the large-diameter wheels which roll with less resistance but are complex to build. Yes, the sliding of hub on axle adds friction and wears them out, not to mention the infernal squeaking —tallow was used in Red River oxcarts in Manitoba—but they didn’t have to last forever.

      In eastern North America, the birchbark canoe was a superb man-transporter and load carrier that exploited the myriad lakes and rivers from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi to the entire shoreline of Hudson Bay. It lent itself readily—still does—to rapid unloading and portaging around rapids and falls and could be repaired or rebuilt with locally available materials. The fur trade enormously stimulated development of the canoe but there is abundant evidence of water-born trade and warfare in large war canoes before the French arrived. I don’t think there can have been many wheeled conveyances in a typical 17th-Century white habitation fronting on the river in New France, either. No roads.

  17. An observation, followed by a total guess:
    Rollers spread a load over a large area, wheels do not, relatively speaking. Those beautiful Roman chariot wheels with thin spokes only work well on a hard surface. Also, rollers require a wide horizontal surface, more so than wheels.
    Perhaps the creation and use of wheels came in generally flatter terrain, like the flood plains of the Nile and of the Tigris/Euphrates, than in less even terrain.

  18. Wheels were in use in the Gangetic plain much earlier than in the Middle East which was desert.This is verified by Vedic texts.

    1. Is there archaeological evidence? I think Vedic texts, unless preserved in ancient sources like inscriptions, are not good evidence alone. What about theIndus civilisation – that is surely older?

      1. I believe that the older stuff in the vedas is thought to pre-date the arrival of the aryans in india. To be material they brought with them, I mean. And that they are known to have had horses & chariots (both from linguistic sources, and from archaeology at least by time they showed up in europe). So it would not seem surprising to me if the vedas mentioned such things, although it’s also possible for later technologies to be inserted into the re-telling of old stories.

        (That this invasion/migration/whatever happened at all was, if I understand right, contested by quite a few scholars in the 20th C. But now DNA is hard to argue with.)

        Whether the indus valley people used wheels I don’t know. As far as I know we still don’t know very well who they were. But likely unrelated to the sanskrit people?

    2. Myths are not references.

      More specifically, the oldest carbon date for a text from that area that I could find was ~ 1,7 kyrs old [ ], while Wikipedia has references to archaeological finds of much older Indus Valley wheels (of admittedly uncertain dates) so perhaps 6 kyrs old.

      The symbol “0” is a familiar sight, but its origins are far from certain. A recent batch of carbon dating is causing the history of mathematics to be rewritten, as it has discovered zeros dating back to a period 500 years before previously seen.

      The numbers appear in an ancient Indian text called the Bakhshali manuscript, which consists of 70 leaves of birch bark, filled with mathematics and text in the form of Sanskrit. “It seems to be a training manual for Buddhist monks,” says Marcus du Sautoy at the University of Oxford.

      Now, for the first time, the manuscript has been carbon dated – and this has immediately upturned some commonly held beliefs. It was originally thought that manuscript was from the 9th century, but the dating methods revealed that the oldest pages are from somewhere between 224 AD and 383 AD.

      This means that the manuscript predates a 9th century inscription of zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero.

      I note that when I tried to find the oldest Vedic (Sanskrit) text, I stumbled on unverified claims of long oral traditions and/or creationist claims that carbon dating doesn’t apply for religious myth claims. Those claims are unreliable (or erroneous) make belief, and I would rather see them as modern extensions of the myth packages.

  19. New World indigenous pottery was made by the coiling technique – the clay was rolled out into a long “rope” and then coiled upon itself to form the pot. Possibly the potter’s wheel in the Old World was a precursor to the wheel as a means of transportation. If New World cultures didn’t have the potter’s wheel, they may not have been able to see its possible uses in other situations.
    Another good question is why the Romans, those superb engineers, never came up with the wheelbarrow. Surprising considering how much construction they indulged in.

    1. Possibly the potter’s wheel in the Old World was a precursor to the wheel as a means of transportation.

      The “coil of mud” technique was used in the Old world too – long before there were potters wheels.

      Another good question is why the Romans, those superb engineers, never came up with the wheelbarrow.

      Hmmm, I think they did. It’s going to take a while for my braincell to dig out the reference, but ISTR them being mentioned in a “build a mile castle on Hadrian’s Wall” type programme.
      A wooden wheel on a wooden axis supporting a wooden frame supporting a wooden plank load bay … would cook a good evening meal when it eventually falls apart (the universal fate of builders tools since time immemorial). Not a lot left to fossilize.

  20. Perhaps the ancients did not only cut but filed their nails down. Say after when soft from being immersed in water, they may have had some way via herbs, etc to help the process.
    I’ve seen this done (the soaking bit) in nail parlours or am I making that up… hmmm.
    As for wheels (Jarod Diamond) IIRC said something about the transfer of ideas, technologies going easily laterally but not horizontally.
    In this view (like across the middle east) nothing in central America went north or south. Possible reasons, tribalism, myopic behaviours born from isolation.
    It is said the Aboriginal people of Tasmania went backwards after the Bass Straight cut them off from mainland Australia. They lost the ability to transfer ideas, technology or simply just abandoned them.

    1. Yup, and the only drawback is spousal disapproval. Ditto biting and peeling. The major limitation to these approaches seems to me to be social conditioning.

    2. Fingernails make good rock files too. If you choose your rock carefully.
      Crushing rocks to powder with your bare hands is a standard geology student trick. It takes a modicum of strength, a bit of practice, and an eye for choosing the right rock and the right direction.

  21. ” And what did they do before they had flint implements?”

    Our pre-man ancestors used flint tools, way back to Australopithecus & Company. I’ve no idea if they used them on their finger nails, though.

  22. Q: Why was the wheel not devised in the New World?

    The history of Euroasian wheel use has unclear roots. The common observation is that it correlates well with the continent that has domesticated large animals and the largest set of domesticated plants whose produce can be moved around larger distances because its orientation along equatorial and temperate latitudes.

    For an interesting take on the American toys, see Wikipedia on “Wheel”:

    On the other hand, Mesoamericans never developed the wheelbarrow, the potter’s wheel, nor any other practical object with a wheel or wheels.[27][28] Although present in a number of toys, very similar to those found throughout the world and still made for children today (“pull toys”),[27][28] the wheel was never put into practical use in Mesoamerica before the 16th century.[27][28] Possibly the closest the Mayas came to the utilitarian wheel is the spindle whorl, and some scholars believe that these toys were originally made with spindle whorls and spindle sticks as “wheels” and “axes”.

    So perhaps adaptations of whorls, not invention of wheels.

    Q: How did our ancestors keep their fingernails and toenails at reasonable length?

    Likely like how other apes with flat nails do, either biting them or leaving them until they (presumably painfully) break. Or at least that is what a search tells me they do including claims on some biology sites. References would be nice, of course.

    1. Yes, I think it is a combination of factors, many already mentioned.
      Wheels are not all that useful when you have no road.
      They are less useful when you need to transport a really heavy load, such as stones (rolls and sledges are better there). I find it significant that the mesoamerican wheeis are only found on toys, not a heavy weight.
      Mesoamerica had a small population which was dispersed over a North/South direction. Diamond gives a good (climatic) explsnation why cultural dispersion, especially agriculture, spreads easier in an East/West direction. The had little ‘ inspiration’ from neighbouring civilizations
      (Note that the llama never made it to Central America.)
      I think this relative isolation is the main reason, after all, they did have the spindle whorl, and toy wheels. But they didn’t have the potter’s wheel, the tension arch and a few more things where the abscence of roads and draft animals should not play a role.

      1. They are less useful when you need to transport a really heavy load, such as stones (rolls and sledges are better there).

        I recall one of the small myriad of “build your own Stonehenge” programmes recently, filmed in Orcadian horizontal rain. The traditional grunting and groaning and ropes. Sledges and rollers – the rollers take a lot more teamwork and timing than you’d expect.
        Then some disruptive sod of a local farmer said “what we do when we need to drag something heavy, is we get some seaweed from the foreshore and drag it over that”. Which was a right spanner in the works because it worked really well.
        Lesson : trust in the laziness of farmers, trying to find an easier way. Trust laziness over academic genius skull-sweat any 4 days of the week.

  23. A lack of suitable harness animals. Cattle were suitable to pull carts, equids once domesticated, but llamas & alpacas are not.

  24. The premise is, apparently, the “wheel” is a circle.

    Nothing says this has to be so.

    Behold : tricycles with square wheels :

    There are probabky triangular wheels but I do not know.

    If anyone knows the Matt Parker video he does on this let me know – can’t find it.

    1. Any regular polygon of 3 or more sides can be used to make a smooth roller of constant width, on top of which a plane-based load can move without rising and falling – which uses energy.
      You can view a circular roller as being an “infinity-o-gon”, or a triangle roller with an infinitesimal central triangle and really extended sides.
      That thing with funny wheels and cycloidal roads was a topic in Engineering Drawing – we’d use the same techniques to design the rise-, hold- and fall- profiles of cams for valve timing in engines and other mechanisms. It was about 5% of the Geometric Drawing paper.

    2. I randomly just found the picture of Matt Parker!

      page 69 in
      Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension
      Matt Parker
      Farrar, Strauss and Giroux [ no Oxford comma! ]
      … that’s page 69, in case anyone missed it. Sixty-nine.

      … Parker explains the catenary thing too. Still not sure where he was.

  25. They probably would have developed a useful wheel, if they had been given time to do so. The Precolumbian New World cultures were still technologically in the stone age, more or less. Some South and Central American cultures were experimenting with metal alloys, but used them primarily for adornment.
    It is a fun topic for speculation whether an isolated population like that would necessarily follow the same technological progression that we did in the old world, and what it would look like when some steps were omitted. I guess the New World is an example of that.
    As others here have mentioned, having the right domesticated animals would spark the need to develop wheeled carts or chariots. Of the seven known animals domesticated in the New World, the Llamas were the closest to suitability as harnessed animals, but they were not used where carts would have made the largest impact, in the great plains and Mississippi area.

    The Egyptians made chariots with wooden wheels and hubs. The wheels were fixed to the axle, which ran through a hollow wooden tube, fixed to the basket or cab. The examples I know about were manufactured on lathes, which allow pretty close manufacturing tolerances. Even so, it would need to be greased very frequently. Of course such a chariot would be designed to be very light weight, and not subject to constant use.
    As soon as you start carrying more weight and scaling up, having wheels fixed to the axle starts to introduce unacceptable stress on the axle. If you add an axle to make a four-wheeled cart, you need the front axle to pivot in turns. It starts to be all about bearings, or at least bushings. The precision required for any of these brings us back to the lathe.

    From my perspective, with my background in military and industrial archaeology, tools for manufacturing need to precede a lot of technological developments.
    A neat thing in traditional machinist training is that you are always making the tooling and fixtures that will let you make the next level of tooling and fixtures. In that way, the individual’s added skills mirrors that of the original development of the tools themselves, and you just keep working to tighter tolerances, adding zeros after the decimal point, and working with more complicated shapes and tapers.
    It seems reasonable that someone who could make a wheeled toy would naturally conceive of a wagon or cart, but might lack the ability to manufacture a reliable upscaled version, or the right materials.
    In the same way, powered flight might have been demonstrated earlier, if the people developing lightweight engines had made a few breakthroughs a bit earlier on.

    1. The examples I know about were manufactured on lathes, which allow pretty close manufacturing tolerances. Even so, it would need to be greased very frequently.

      Until someone realised the advantages of lignam vitae – a self-greasing wood.
      I’m not sure when that became known in Europe, but it was an important part of Harrison’s “Number 1” marine chronometer, trying to solve the “Longitude problem” in about 1720.

  26. More interesting is how our ancestors cut their hair before they had knives or stones with a cutting edge.

    You’ve never had long hair without time to spend grooming it, have you?
    Even if you can find time for 20 minutes plus of combing a day (so, you need to make a comb – non-trivial), it tends to find an equilibrium length which isn’t that long.
    When I was a youth, my hair would occasionally approach waist length at the back, but it hasn’t done that since my 40s. (By comparison, Dad’s hair was almost completely gone by his mid-30s, while Mum still has her own hair in her mid-80s.)
    If you live an active lifestyle – “hunting, shooting arrows, fishing barehanded” – your hair will rapidly tug out to a moderate length. Yes, it hurts. So what? How hungry are you?
    I have, occasionally, gone for the “Nazi thug” look with a number 1 or 2 haircut – normally after getting my hair caught in my abseil device while caving, which really hurts! Even given the need to cut your hair every month or several, it is a lot easier to maintain than a full head of hair. Since I last did that, some time in the “noughties”, I’ve let my hair grow and it has stabilized just below my shoulder blades. Anything longer than that gets ripped out, fairly rapidly. (Or broken above the tangle, leaving the root untouched.) I guess my hair grew faster in my 20s and 30s, when my stable length was about my waistline.
    No, it doesn’t get in my eyes, if I use any sort of fabric hair band. (Or a plant bast one – in either case, much easier than making either a knife or a comb.)That’s an imaginary problem.

  27. I worked for many years as a steel fabricator requiring constant handling of steel and tools. During those years I never needed to trim my fingernails. They just wore down from the friction with the things I was handling. I imagine our ancestors had a similar experience. I’d even go so far as to guess that is the reason our nails evolved the way they did, as protection and strengtheners for the tips of our digits.

  28. According to Wikipedia the Early Bronze Age began 3300 BCE, 5300 yrs ago. Wheeled transport is hard to fashion; parts need making. Bronze may have been instrumental. If so, needed: horse and bronze. New World had neither. Horse carried goods, widened path; idea: wheel; now to make wheel axle and fittings so the darn thing rolls smoothly and doesn’t fall apart.

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